Jun 14, 2011

Monkey droppings - magic, magic everywhere, but not a drop to drink

Today, the monkey goes in search of magic and adventure.

And he finds some.

And he learns that sometimes, magic is not enough.

Vegas Knights (2011, Angry Robot)
by Matt Forbeck

I love me some magic realism. Taking the world as it is today, twisting it out of shape through supernatural means, always entertains me a sight more than the usual fantasy output of vaguely middle age-ish scenarios wherein dwarfs, elves, and centaurs form gangs and quest to their hearts content. Not that those are necessarily bad, it's just that I have a hard time relating. Put those same characters in a realistic setting, and I'm there. Lev Grossman's The Magicians is one of the best fantasies I've read in years, right up there with Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.

So a novel about magicians set loose in Nevada would seem ideal. Or at least fun. And Matt Forbeck's novel is fun, in a free-wheeling, loosey-goosey way. I just wish it had some more meat on its bones.

Bill and Jackson are, outwardly, fun-loving young men bursting to have a good time on the Vegas strip. In actuality, they are novice magicians, on break from their college courses in "trans-quantum postulating," looking to fleece some casinos during Spring Break. Being able to predict cards and change hands would seem an easy way to get some quick cash, but the boys are not aware of the sinister underbelly of the city, one that depends on magic to keep its allure alive. Two magicians playing blackjack is less a rare occurrence than they believe, and soon they discover that they may not be up to the challenge of taking on the entire magician's syndicate.

Forbeck has a lot of fun with this conceit, bringing in some lovely pseudo-science to explain the actuality of magic's existence. As Jackson explains:
"That's the stigma that surrounds magic—that it's the product of demonic pacts or other crazy things—but it's nothing close to the truth. Using your mojo is simply the conscious manipulation of the quantum state of things. By taking control of an altering probability, we can make things happen that seem magical, but every bit of the process can be explained with science."
Makes perfect sense. Or not, really, but it's fun to play with.

But Forbeck isn't a strong enough writer to bring his characters to life. His magicians are heroic and intelligent, but there's no depth to the portrayals. The plot moves briskly, and I can see this making a very enjoyable feature film, but Forbeck's style is too mundane to create much excitement. His prose is plodding, and despite a vivid imagination, he can't summon up the breathless excitement his non-stop narrative requires (for a better example, see Gord Zajac's Major Karnage, a non-stop sci-fi chase that brings enough wit and oomph to the pursuit that you don't even mind some gaping logic holes).

But even more than than, a story of magic requires, well, magic to make it work. Clarke and Grossman and others of their ilk (Tolkien, C.S. Lewis) have genuine mastery of language and style, proving themselves magicians of the highest calibre. Forbeck is likeable, with strokes of originality, but at present he's an off-strip illusionist at best. I wanted to enjoy much more than I did, as the publisher Angry Robot appears determined to produce high-quality genre fiction, as evidenced by its recent re-release of K.W. Jeter's steampunk classics Morlock Nights and Infernal Devices, along with Lavie Tidhar's The Bookman and Camera Obscura. But Vegas Knights is a trifle at best; much like Vegas itself, it plays at glamour, but in the end it's a rather cheap entertainment, diverting but unmemorable.


Harbor (2011, Thomas Dunne Books)
by John Ajvide Lindqvist

Ah, hyperbole, where would we be without you?

I received the ARC of Harbor (to be released in October), and was taken in by the promise of "a sprawling horror epic." But having completed said novel, I make the following suggestion: if you are going to promote your book as a "horror epic," it had better be damned horrific and damned epic. The Stand is a horror epic. Carrion Comfort is a horror epic. Swan Song, Frankenstein, World War Z; these are epics of horror.

Harbor is not a horror epic. It contains elements of horror, yes, but its horrors are muted and small, personally terrifying to a character, yet hardly epic in scope.

That said, Harbor is not a bad read. Indeed, it has moments of creeping dread, and a storyline presented in vivid yet intimate detail. It's no horror epic, but it has elegance and style, and it takes time to build up its characters so that the horror, when it comes, is all the more intense. But it's also flabby and awkward, and makes the cardinal sin of having secondary characters far more interesting than the lead.

To be fair, it starts like gangbusters. On the remote Swedish isle of Domarö, Anders and Cecilia have taken their daughter Maja for a winter hike to a lighthouse, when she mysteriously vanishes. Cut to two years later; Anders is now a compulsive alcoholic, his marriage long dissolved, coming back to Domarö because it is the only thing he has left that still connects him to his daughter. His grandmother Anna-Greta and her companion Simon take care to keep him alive, but both are harboring secrets about the island, and from each other. There is an evil to Domarö, and Maja may have been a victim to something that has ruled the sea for centuries.

This has the potential to be a great, old-fashioned horror story, the kind that emphasized character and atmosphere over shocks. Domarö is an intriguing place, and even if the island never becomes what I hoped it would—there were echoes of Lovecraft early on, and I had visions of a great Cthulhu uprising that was not to be—it retains an aura of menace that Lindqvist and his translator (from the original Swedish) evoke with care and restraint.

Yet after a while, it becomes apparent that Harbor, for all its plentiful strengths, is rather schizophrenic, as if Lindqvist could not make up his mind what story to tell. Frankly, Anna-Greta's and Simon's story is by far the more compelling; Lindqvist goes into great detail over Simon's past life as a magician and escape artist, a man who one day discovers a strange insect that imparts to him supernatural powers over water. Simon's story is laden with intrigue and suspense, and his relationship to the secrets-holding Anna-Greta becomes the lynchpin for the entire narrative. Or rather, it should have, as it's by far the more effective plotline. Yet Lindqvist awkwardly fuses their story with that of Anders, who through his alcoholism and mania is a far less interesting protagonist. His missing daughter plotline may be more readily identifiable to readers—how many of us have been granted water-based superpowers?—but it doesn't hold the attention.

I am not familiar with Lindqvist's past work—all I know of him is the Swedish film adaptation of his vampire novel Let the Right One In and its American counterpart Let Me In, both very strong, atmospheric horror films with some poor CGI moments. Based on those movies, I will one day read the novel, as Harbor displays a writer with true gifts. Sadly, Harbor is very likely lesser to his previous work, a novel full of ideas that is unable to string them together.


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